Book Review and Analysis - Heart of Darkness

On the Congo River.
On the Congo River. | Source

Three Journeys

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

This 1902 book is a triad of very dark journeys told together by Joseph Conrad to focus on the concept of absolute right and wrong versus situational ethics. This includes behaviors in one's own society and in those of other nationalities and countries.

The book and its three journeys are very interesting overall and provide compelling situations that call for moral decision making that is often difficult.

The book asks the question of just what is truth and does it change with a changing setting?

A difficult portion of the river to navigate.
A difficult portion of the river to navigate. | Source
The Roi des Belges, the ship Conrad used in the Congo
The Roi des Belges, the ship Conrad used in the Congo

A River Parable

Based on his personal experiences as a merchant ship commander in the 1890s Congo, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is a symbolic story of dark journeys taken through Africa, the mind and the heart (spirit). The physical, psychological, and spiritual journeys of protagonist Marlow, the narrator, occur in the context of greedy colonialism imposed by England over Africa in the late 19th century.

The story's motif of darkness ties together journeys that also represent the author's own journeys and related ideas.

In this story, darkness describes the tragic results of brutality in England's capitalistic conquest of Africa. In illustrating Europe's plunder of African peoples and resources, Marlow's (Conrad's) three-pronged journey becomes a parable of man's fallibility, illusions, and confusion.

Africa, England, and Brussels are all described as dark and oppressive; with darkness representing the inability to see clearly within the human condition, because the mind (psychology) and heart (spirit) are blinded by greed. The darkness is prejudice that fails to see other cultures as human - leading to abuse, murder, and slavery; cavalier foreign relations; and the loss of the prejudiced person's own humanity, spiritually.

Congo River
Congo River | Source

Physical, Psychological and Spiritual Paths

Marlow presents Conrad's ideas that the author once witnessed firsthand. These included that English imperialism was oppressive, depressing, and wrong.

In Marlow's physical journey along the Congo into the center of Africa, mirroring Conrad's sailing trips, he comes to feel that imperialism toward people labeled "savage" is wrong, because the natives are actual people, not wild animals. The physical journey is a trip away from England and imperialistic values, sailing along the Congo River to Central Station in the center (heart) of Africa.

The psychological journey is one from strong prejudice to accepting other peoples and beliefs, which is a journey from conservative thinking toward the left to more centrist thinking.

Marlow's confusion between belief systems in England and Africa resulted in a mental change to accept other customs as legitimate in settings other than England. This confusion caused his values to blur and his understanding of reality to become shaky -- Was England real, or was Africa, or was it all illusion?

Marlow's confusion resulted in a journey from his imperialism and capitalism to his rejection of some of his own values, especially honesty, losing part of his heart and identity. Spiritually, Marlow journeyed from strong beliefs to changeable beliefs.

Colonial Congo.
Colonial Congo.
show route and directions
A markerDemocratic Republic of Congo -
Democratic Republic of the Congo
[get directions]

B markerCentral Station, Kasangulu Bas-Congo -
Kasangulu, Democratic Republic of the Congo
[get directions]

By Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness describes depression, oppression, obsession, and confusion converging toward psychological madness. It is a journey to the heart of the darkest self-service aroused by the need to survive in the face of the threat from foreign cultures.

Marlow sails away from English values for his employer, in order to report back news of Station Chief Kurtz, the most successful company man. Marlow, becoming obsessed with Kurtz's success, meets African natives and is nonplussed by their cultural differences from him. Imperialistic, he at first rejects the natives as savage. His basic honesty is overwhelmed by false stereotypes that justify whites usurping native labor and ivory for English profit; and he overwhelmed by discovering Kurtz's business manipulations.

Mid-way into his physical trip, Marlow begins to wish to adopt the simpler lifestyle and slower pace he observes among the native population. This because reality now seems much better in Africa, since he has been away from England for an extended period of time. Meeting Kurtz's African fiancée, Marlow is simply inspired by her. Having been obsessed with Kurtz's success up to this point, Marlow soon discovers that Kurtz no longer possessed Western values, and also had not accepted Congolese values, either.

When Marlow finds Kurtz dying, he is so overcome with respect for Kurtz's will to survive in a strange land that he canonizes Kurtz in his mind a success. This he does despite the lying and murdering Kurtz has done. Kurtz had regressed to basic survival behaviors in Africa, exploiting the locals and lying in order to succeed. Under the awe he feels for Kurtz's skills, Marlow, once an honest man, now justifies all of the exploitation and crime and states that it was only Kurtz doing what was necessary in the situation. To him, Kurtz is a hero.

Next, Marlow lies to the fiancée about Kurtz's last words, because it is "situationally" correct to do so. This shows Marlow accepting situational ethics as valid in order to cover the fact that he cannot reconcile his own honesty with his hero's dishonesty.

People of the Congo

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Source
Source

After this, Marlow loses himself spirituality by drifting away from honesty, no longer taking an absolute stand for anything. He feels any action can be accepted as right and good, given the appropriate situation. He thereby reduces himself to an ethical zero by standing for nothing absolutely, but standing for everything in the right setting. In this change, he journeys from spiritual strength into spiritual emptiness.

Marlow travels physically to the heart of Africa; he journeys psychologically by changing his mental orientation to accept both African native values and Kurtz's evil as acceptable; and he journeys spiritually via a changing sense of reality and values, based upon situational ethics, from inner strength to spiritual bankruptcy. His three journeys reveal him not to be as capitalistic, honest, and spiritually robust as he and others had believed him to be.

The three journeys cause readers to consider whether situational ethics are acceptable, or just the "easy way out"; and whether an individual should remain the same person with consistent behaviors no matter what situation or group he finds himself to be in, or whether he should change with the setting and the crowd.

Psychiatry and psychology have termed this constant changing a "personality disorder" and state that the condition is predominant in the normal adolescent development occurring before adulthood.

Perhaps situational ethics is an immature developmental stage of society

Source

© 2007 Patty Inglish

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Comments 29 comments

Zsuzsy Bee profile image

Zsuzsy Bee 9 years ago from Ontario/Canada

Looks interesting, I'll add it to my to read list.

regards Zsuzsy


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 9 years ago from North America Author

it is pretty intereting. I'd like to see the film. Let me know what you think of the book.


AuraGem profile image

AuraGem 8 years ago from Victoria, Australia

This is a book I had to read at Uni. I read it and re-read it. The great, dark abyss of a tormented soul is beautifully captured. I may not remember all the detail of the book, but I ceertainly remember the awe I felt reading it. A disturbing book! I loved it!

Great comment on it!


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 8 years ago from North America Author

Thank you AuraGem! It does provide a type of awe, even eerieness.


Kat07 profile image

Kat07 8 years ago from Tampa

Patty - I had to read Heart of Darkness in college - I recall the dark and sometimes disturbing tones of the story, it was a good read.


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 8 years ago from North America Author

It IS kind of disturbing, but like yourself, I'm glad to have read it. In it, I leanred more about elitism and prejudice.


Iðunn 8 years ago

dudette! I read this book and SO loved it. I have always remembered it. I didn't find it so much disturbing as so intrinsically human. It was an extraordinary piece of literature.


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 8 years ago from North America Author

Ahhh yesssss - human. That is so true. Humanity is amazing in all of its facets, some dark, some light, some extraordinarily bright.

Thanks for reminding me of that! You lifted my heart.


Eileen profile image

Eileen 8 years ago from Florida,Miami

oh i loved it!!! it seems you just right one after another great hub! everyone shou,ld read this book!

this isn't about your hub, how do you write a heart? its by the "Three Journeys"


Iðunn 8 years ago

I'm glad then because you do that for me, often. :)

I used to tell my children they were perfect because they were not perfect. If they were perfect, there would be something wrong with them. :D


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 8 years ago from North America Author

Eileen - yes, that heart is available in the "symbols" option in the editing bar at the top of the text box - it looks like an OMEGA or a fancy horseshoe - click on it and it pops up a box of symbols you can select with a click.

Iouun - sounds like the Asian maxim - anything perfect is dead (because it has nowhere/noway to grow) - like Asian cork scultptures in their display boxes - beautiful but, dead.


AuraGem profile image

AuraGem 8 years ago from Victoria, Australia

For those interested in this concept of "heart of darkness", Australian novelist Patrick White wrote "Voss". It is set in the mid 19th century, when a small group of hardy travellers cross the continent for the first time. It is based on the true record of Ludwig Leichardt, an explorer. Randolph Stow wrote "To the Islands" - a journey of self-discovery in the islands of the dead. Both great reads!

Smiles and Light


Iðunn 8 years ago

aura, I will try to look for that one. sounds great~


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 8 years ago from North America Author

Aura and Iouun - it would be great if either could post a review of those books in the future!


Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 8 years ago

Great review, Patty. I missed the TV movie. Of course, the Colonel Kurtz Brando character in "Apocalypse Now" was based on Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." Conrad is one of my favorites. Although his native language was Polish he's one of the great writers in English. He was born Josef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in Poland.


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 8 years ago from North America Author

Ralph, I will definitely watch "Apocalypse Now", since you have added this great information about the Colonel's character. Somehow, I did not realize that Conrad was a native Polish speaker. How interesting!


Iðunn 8 years ago

everyone says that, but you know, I saw 'apocalypse now' and I read the book, independently 'heart of darkness' and to me there was zero connection. and I didn't even know there was a tv movie. :p

agree on conrad. wonderful author.


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 8 years ago from North America Author

Hmmm. Now I must watch and compare and see if I see similarity or none. I need 10 eyes to read and see everything I would like to know about.


Iðunn 8 years ago

hehe, me too patty!


Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 8 years ago

Well, Idunn, in both books there was a trip up a river and the discovery of a crazed, rogue, westerner worshipped as something of a king or deity by the local people. (As I recall the book and movie. But my memory ain't as good as it used to be.)


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 8 years ago from North America Author

Well, we must invent a way to have more eyes.


AuraGem profile image

AuraGem 8 years ago from Victoria, Australia

lol Love your last comment Patty! Perhaps I will write a review of "To the Islands". It is a book that has slipped into the dust and cobwebs high on the antiquity shelf. Such a shame! It definitely needs a new wardrobe and maybe a new face!

Smiles and Light


Kenny Wordsmith profile image

Kenny Wordsmith 8 years ago from Chennai

Thanks for sharing your experience with the book. Most physical journeys have parallel ones in our mental and spritual planes. Conrad, with his book, takes us on a journey, which uplifts us in our other areas too, though each according to his chosen path.

Great going, Patty, thank you again!


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 8 years ago from North America Author

Yes yes, to the Islands!

Kenny W. - Exactly right I think. Someone stuck in bed is stuck in a mental rut oo usually. Great observation KW!


Iðunn 8 years ago

ralph, you're remembering it correctly, although in the book, the lead character wasn't perceived as a demi-god but more as a sidekick to a demi-god. I would have to say 'last king of scotland' was more like the conrad book in it's own way, than 'apocalpyse'. :p


Lisa Nance profile image

Lisa Nance 8 years ago from North Carolina Mountains

If I'm not mistaken, this book usues a unique literary technique that is a narrative within a narrative. Someone is telling the story from the point of view of another. A classisc book in the truest since. I think I'll read it again after reading your review...Thanks!!


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 8 years ago from North America Author

I think that's right. Lisa - things within things is a bright device that I like. The book was more enjoyable the second time through for me :)


kjkj 5 years ago

very gooooooooooood bok


Runa 4 years ago

dis page has helped me so much and Im really thankfull to this page

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    Patty Inglish (Patty Inglish, MS)6,759 Followers
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